Is navigation making us dumber?

9th Jun 2018 9:00 am

On how the advent of in-car navigation also has its downsides.

I hate to admit this, but I am susceptible to losing my way without clear, step-by-step instructions. Growing up, I thought this would be a major hindrance to my dreams of driving off into the sunset, but as things have turned out it has proved to be a minor inconvenience, at best. This is thanks to the directions offered by onboard satellite navigation systems, Google Maps, and the likes.

When it comes to driving in the chaos of Mumbai, I can tell you how good your outing will be based on the knowledge of two things – the fastest route and the availability of parking. The fastest route could be a using a detour, which might be really long but with less traffic, and this is where Google Maps comes in handy. For someone who hasn’t been driving around this city for all that long and doesn’t remember roads all that well, the app is a boon. This goes double for when I’m travelling to new places. The parking bit? Hopefully, they’ll build something in the app for that too.

Brain drain

There is a downside to using maps all the time. Different research projects have shown that depending on the app for guidance can reduce one’s cognitive abilities, specifically the memory and analytical areas of the brain. There is the famous case of the London taxi drivers whose job requires them to memorise all the roads in the city, also known as “The Knowledge”. A study on London taxi drivers’ brains, led by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, showed a greater volume of grey matter in the hippocampus, when compared to non-taxi drivers.

All this science means that, by depending on smartphone apps or navigation systems to guide us, we use our brains less, and like any part of the body that is used less, it atrophies. Véronique Bohbot, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, has a gloomy outlook on this fact, saying it could lead to a loss of memory and a growing long-term risk of dementia.

Driving pleasure

The navigation software does take the hassle out of remembering a route or planning an hour-long trip (any journey in Mumbai is about that long). It’s like having your own co-pilot who gives you directions, making the competitive driving environment and the bumpy roads feel almost like a rally stage. I’m exaggerating on the last bit, of course, but, thanks to the navigation software, I can concentrate more on my driving rather than fret whether the turn that just went by was the one I was supposed to take. On our chaotic roads, it really helps to have an eye out for the random pedestrian running across a poorly lit section, or the biker who suddenly swerves in your path.

The right direction?

However, the application does have its downsides, the first of which is it starts by saying, “Head North (or West or East).” Most people (me included) usually don’t have a clue about the direction they are facing. Then there are those times when the dreaded “GPS signal lost” comes blaring through the speakers – a feeling made even more scary with the loss of mobile network. It is at times like these that I feel in-car navigation has made me dumber.

Although research shows the opposite, my experience with Google Maps has led me to learn many new roads and has actually helped expand my mental map of Mumbai, Pune, and even a few cities abroad. While I can’t make any argument for the amount of grey matter in my hippocampus, the convenience of Google Maps is undeniable. However, part of going on a road trip to an unknown place is getting lost, finding something new and undiscovered, and finding your way back. That’s what makes for a good driving story, doesn’t it?

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